U.S. News

08.25.14

Is Alimony Anti-Feminist?

At least one observer wonders whether $30 million-plus in payments helped kill Robin Williams. Is alimony hopelessly antiquated and un-feminist?

On Saturday, Henry Rollins finally responded to days of criticism and apologized for a column he wrote that appeared critical of Robin Williams’ suicide. Rollins became just the latest media figure to spark controversy for his thoughts on the Williams tragedy. Fox News anchor Shep Smith also apologized for using the word “coward” during his coverage of Williams, while Rush Limbaugh drew fire for managing to link the comedian’s death to (what else?) the political left.

But another media figure has weighed in with a controversial take on Williams’ suicide. She has blamed alimony. More specifically, she is using his death as a rallying cry for alimony reform and raising the question: Is alimony anti-feminist?

New York Daily News Columnist Linda Stasi’s opening line leaves little to the imagination. She asks point blank, “Did alimony kill Robin Williams?” She then goes on to write: “At least in part it sure did. Paying out over $30 million to ex-wives who were allowed to attach themselves to Williams’ bank account like comatose patients on feeding tubes would be enough to make Gandhi angry and depressed.” As controversial as Stasi’s column may be, she is not alone in wondering whether Williams’ alimony and subsequent money woes ultimately played a role in his death.

In an interview, Steve Hitner, founder of Massachusetts Alimony Reform, raised the subject of Williams’ suicide as he spoke of the countless people, particularly men, who have had their lives ruined by unfair alimony laws. After alimony payments to his former wife ruined him financially, Hitner spent years advocating reform of Massachusetts’ alimony laws: “The way the law was at the time the receiving spouse need[ed] to be maintained in the lifestyle of the marriage.” Hitner hit a rough patch financially and could no longer afford the payments, but he could not get the payments to his ex-wife modified. “So I felt the only way I could win was to change the law,” he says. “It took me eight years to do it. I started Massachusetts Alimony Reform.”

Massachusetts had among the most draconian alimony statutes in the country, which often resulted in lifetime alimony payments to the lesser-earning spouse, regardless of duration of the marriage or ability of the higher-earning spouse to pay. Ironically, according to Hitner, women were some of his staunchest allies in getting the Massachusetts law reformed. These women were often second wives, who did not take kindly to the idea that a substantial portion of their new husband’s salary would be going to his former wife, particularly in instances in which the first wife had a new live-in partner, something the former law did not take into account. Today, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Connecticut, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Florida all have lifetime alimony statutes. New Jersey’s Assembly, however, recently passed a reform law. It has not yet been signed into law by Governor Chris Christie.

In an age in which women serve in the cabinet and are now obtaining college degrees at higher rates than men, the idea that women should be awarded a post-divorce allowance from a spouse strikes many as outdated.

The concept of alimony, also referred to as “maintenance” in some countries, dates back thousands of years and was first referenced in texts in ancient Babylon. Though gender roles and traditional marriage definitions have evolved greatly since then, the traditional meaning of alimony has remained largely the same. A marriage ends and one party pays the less financially solvent party some sort of means of support. In ancient times when it was not feasible for women to obtain meaningful work or to remarry easily due to cultural norms, alimony served as an important form of security. But today, in an age in which women serve in the cabinet and are now obtaining college degrees at higher rates than men, the idea that women (who receive alimony at much higher rates than men) should be awarded a post-divorce allowance from a spouse strikes many as outdated and an embarrassment to feminist principles.

In her column Stasi wrote…”the truth is alimony (which is different from child support and fair distribution of assets acquired during the marriage) doesn’t mean the non-working spouse is entitled to live as high as the Kardashians. It’s that concept that is fundamentally anti-feminist.”

Joan Entmacher of the National Women’s Law Center disagreed. She stressed the rarity of lifetime alimony and said that she believes that in a number of instances alimony remains a necessity. “The reality is that both within a marriage and the workplace women have still not achieved equality,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s still more likely that in a marriage [it’s] the woman who makes some career sacrifices to raise children and provide a home. It is also the case that her work opportunities are diminished particularly if she’s had children, and the statistics bear this out.”

Asked if she believes lifetime alimony should be eradicated and Entmacher said no, though she believes this should be assessed on a case-by-case basis: “We just did a report on women in low-wage work and found that the percentage of women over 50 working in jobs that paid less than $10.10 an hour make up about 25 percent of the low-wage workforce.” She continued, “To say to someone who has really given her life to a marriage, to raising the children, sacrificing her own opportunities to do that, that, ‘Well, you can go work at McDonald’s the rest of your life to avoid homelessness,’ when your spouse is extremely successful, I don’t see that as fair or a victory of feminist principles that you give so much of yourself and are left with nothing.” She added that if a marriage is relatively brief, however, and a woman is younger and well educated then lifetime alimony would not make as much sense.

Jared Wood, a partner at the Massachusetts-based law firm firm Goldstein, Egloff, Ramos, and Wood, who practiced family law before and after the Massachusetts reform law went into effect, believes it has been a sweeping success. “I am a fan of alimony reform and I am a fan of the law Massachusetts passed in 2011,” Wood told me. “One of the problems that existed prior to the enactment of the alimony reform act was inconsistency. Judges had broad discretion when determining the amount and duration of alimony.” As Wood explained, before the law existed, you could have two couples who were married the same number of years, made the exact same income, but get two different judges and end up with two wildly different outcomes. Now, thanks to the law there are clear parameters. As a result, more couples are willing to reach settlements instead of slugging it out in court for years.

Wood believes, like Entmacher, there are instances in which lifetime alimony is appropriate, although he believes those instances are likely to be rare. “Marriage is a partnership and in that partnership, economically and for childrearing reasons sometimes it makes sense to prioritize one spouse’s career over the other,” he says. “Maybe one spouse has an awesome job opportunity in LA and the couple agrees to leave their jobs in New York. Well, that is very beneficial to the spouse who has a new job in LA, but detrimental to the one who left a job in New York. This makes sense in the context of a partnership.” He concluded, “But when the partnership ends, the spouse who relied on this partnership remaining intact in order to take advantage of this new opportunity for both of them should not be left at a disadvantage.”

Steve Hitner wanted to make it clear that he too believes that lifetime alimony should not be eradicated but should be rare, and never the default law. For instance, he said he believes it would be unconscionable for a spouse to abandon a sick spouse who has no means of financially supporting herself while ill. In that scenario lifetime alimony would make sense. But, he explained, he fields calls all the time from elderly men in the states where lifetime alimony remains the law, men who are retired and fearful of how they will support themselves in their twilight years while still expected to support a spouse they have been divorced from for more years than they were married.

And today, the critics of lifetime alimony are not just husbands and their new wives. In the last three decades, courts have begun to apply gender parity to the awarding of alimony. High-profile women like news anchor Joan Lunden and actress Linda Lavin have had to pay out sizable sums. But despite the strides women have made professionally and personally, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal, men are significantly less likely to take alimony, even when they qualify for it. Despite how much more their spouse may have earned, the stigma of being financially dependent on an ex looms large enough that plenty of men decide it’s not worth it. Maybe we’ll know that we have reached true gender parity when more women feel the same way.